How To Avoid Libel

Defamation is the generic legal term for any communicative act that makes false claims or false statements that are harmful or injurious to another person.  When the defamation is done using the spoken word, it is called slander.  When the defamation happens in written communications, it is called libel.

So many lawsuits have been filed for slander and libel.  These two are pretty common in politics, as they are in show business.  Does this mean that only popular figures and well-known personalities can file a suit against slanderous tongues and libelous pens?  Not necessarily.  Each citizen--whether a public figure or not--is protected against any malicious or injurious statements made by another citizen.

Between the two--slander and libel--slander is more difficult to prove, unless there exists a clear audio record of the slanderous remarks by another person in relation to a person.  Libel is much easier to prove in court, because the printed matter--a news column, a blog, an email, a magazine article, and so on--can be easily admitted in court as supporting evidence for the libel case.

How, then, can you avoid libel?  Here are some tips that you need to keep in mind if you are writing about someone.

  • Choose your words carefully.  Sometimes, an honest-to-goodness candid remark about another person can be misconstrued as libelous.  Avoid making false accusations about another person.  The trickier part is in avoiding making false assumptions or hasty conclusions based on evidence or proof based on hearsay.  If you dare to criticize someone--say, a public figure--make sure that your statements are foolproof and that you have hard evidence to support your claims.  Otherwise, you're a sitting duck for a libel case.
  • Stay in the middle.  Especially when commenting about public controversies and issues, you can easily get swayed to take sides.  After all, that's the nature of a public controversy: it polarizes the public into those in favor and those who are against.  Be especially careful when you take sides and avoid statements that portray another person in a bad light, or assails another person's competences, or makes false claims about another person.  To be safe, be balanced and fair in your writing.  That is, remain neutral without getting yourself caught in the crossfire.  When you remain neutral, balanced, and fair in your writing, you will be described as disinterested or impartial, and courts will often throw libel cases out the window if the written evidence shows disinterest.
  • Be truthful.  You may have hard evidence, but if your interpretation of the evidence is faulty or lacking in merit, you're screwed.  Don't base your statements on speculation.  Be extra careful about your intention for stating an opinion.  If the court can prove malicious intent on your part, you're screwed.
  • Be familiar with your rights and obligations as a writer.  If you are an online columnist, blogger, or writer, you can check the legal guides provided by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is an international non-profit group whose purpose is the protection of those who publish using digital media.

Truth in media is very crucial to democratic processes, but this doesn't mean that those who publish in print and electronic media have blanket authority to say whatever they want about whomever.


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